Dan Barouch, MD, PhD (Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, BIDMC) discussed how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources.
Forbes – February 10, 2021
Antifragility On Steroids: Embracing Disruption As The New Norm
One of the key lessons learned in 2020 is that disruption is the new norm. As corporate leaders, we have to be ready for anything. Even as we navigate through the Covid-19 pandemic, we have to anticipate what we will do when the next virus or superbug rages around the world in a devastating way.
Few, if any, corporate leaders saw this coming. Many companies had to find ways to pivot, adapt and innovate. More than ever, corporate leaders have to look beyond the normal to consider what might be around the corner and how they will respond. Many executives realized that their organizations’ structures and strategies were fragile. What they must now realize is that antifragility must be baked into the culture, infrastructure and strategy.
Nassim Taleb, the author of Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, described antifragility, in part, as the love of “randomness and uncertainty.” Any company today, no matter the industry, must draw from Taleb’s pillars of antifragility in order to prepare themselves to succeed now and well into the future. In fact, accepting volatility — not resisting it — is what can help companies grow. Every company needs to exist with antifragility on steroids.
Confront The ‘Black Swan’ Problem
Taleb talks about the “black swan” problem — the inability to calculate the risks of rare events (e.g., Covid-19) or predict the outcomes. What Taleb is describing is a CEO’s worst nightmare happening without any warning. That’s what the past year has been for so many executives in so many kinds of industries. Businesses have been forced to work remotely. Real estate managers are trying to figure out what to do with the current and future leasing of space. Educational institutions are now having to transform lesson plans and learning into virtual environments. Restaurant owners are swiftly pivoting to app-based order and online delivery and pick-up models.
It’s human nature for our minds to thrive for order and structure. When black swans enter the fold, the tendency is to shield the business and employees from disruption. However, for those who still have their doors open, they’ve embraced antifragility, realizing that there’s more upside to random events than downside. Being antifragile means corporate leaders can now push their team members to look at the impossible, prepare for it and experience only minor disruptions in their business models.
For many CEOs, the disruption of the past year has pushed them to their limits. But Taleb’s “Triad” is built off a spectrum. On one end, you have fragility, where the leaders take on a negative mindset that this is going to destroy the company. In the middle, there are those organizations that are robust; perhaps they’re not deeply affected by disruptions, but they also end up stuck, paralyzed by inaction. On the far end is antifragility. That’s where many of the most successful companies live not just sometimes but all the time.
For example, look at the pharmaceutical companies that have responded to the Covid-19 crisis with amazing rapidity. First, they immediately pulled together their best researchers and scientists to pull data from what they had done to create previous vaccines (e.g., H1NI, Ebola, Zika) to develop a vaccine that is currently in mass distribution. This rapid development — with all the medical accountability baked in, including pretrials, trials and continuous testing — could transform this process in the years to come.
Dan Barouch, the director of Harvard Medical School’s Center for Virology and Vaccine Research, told Nature Research: “It shows how fast vaccine development can proceed when there is a true global emergency and sufficient resources. It has shown that the development process can be accelerated substantially without compromising on safety.”
The massive disruption Covid-19 caused also reveals how the regulatory process for approval of these vaccines are fragile, causing regulators to find better ways to ensure quality and trust but also responding to an international tragedy.
Use Data To Fuel Antifragility
One of the first steps corporate leaders need to take is to open up their minds. Too many leaders get stuck on doing things the way they’ve always done them without pausing for a moment, analyzing the data they’ve gathered and embracing new solutions to improve their company, their customer relations, their products and their services.
Leaders have to change their mindsets to use these insights as a way to make strategic decisions that drive the business forward. For this to happen, leaders must foster a culture within the company where there is continuous learning. There has to be an environment where team members are free to explore the data, devise a solution, implement it and figure out whether it’s going to work. That means executives have to accept the notion of failing fast. You won’t learn to innovate if you don’t try to innovate. With each failure, there’s an opportunity to assess, analyze then act, moving on to the next solution and challenging any assumptions made every step along the way.
The fragility of our health care systems was truly exposed due to the pandemic. It forced them to improve their supply chain systems to source ventilators and personal protective equipment as well as rapidly reconfigure their facilities to accommodate overcapacities due to the rise in Covid-19 patients. Doctors’ and nurses’ treatment methods have been perfect examples where data is driving continuous learning and, in turn, fueling innovation. With each case, they learn more about how to deal with the next one. Even as the virus mutates, they have collected more data than ever on not only how to best address the current situation but how to prepare for the next emergency. The result: They’re becoming more antifragile.
In any company, there are those executives who caution the company on moving too fast or investing too much in unproven products or services. There are financial team members who are constantly reminding you of the costs and ROI and engineers who tell you 10 reasons why something can’t be done.
If antifragility is the goal, which is what every business should strive for, then any corporate leader must confront disruption as the norm and accept antifragility on steroids as a critical element of its strategic and operational mindset.